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Week 4, Session 1: Keeping healthy boundaries

Hello everyone! Welcome to Week 4, our final week. 

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However, if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

The goals for this session are:

  • Understand potential situations that can arise when trying to set new boundaries
  • Identify when boundaries are too rigid
  • Educate on how to keep healthy boundaries consistently 

As always, let’s start with our grounding exercise! If you can, please join in. 

Our first grounding exercise will be… 

We are going to try and imagine a place or scene that makes us feel safe. It can be somewhere you´ve been before, a place you remember, maybe from a holiday; or it could be somewhere you’ve heard about, maybe in a story, or it could be somewhere that you invent and make up yourself.

Take a few deep breaths...in your safe place, you can see the things you want, and imagine touching and smelling them, and hearing pleasant sounds. You can feel calm and happy. Have another look around, and remember that this is your safe place and you can come here whenever you want to feel calm or secure.
Fun question: What is your favorite TV show at the moment?

As we have seen, it’s incredibly important to maintain a good connection with our sense of self, to preserve our wellbeing, and to support our relationships to bloom. But in this practice of setting boundaries, we sometimes go too far. We start saying “no” to everything without much consideration of what we want. Maybe we are tired of the way things have been and we take some desperate measures to set boundaries everywhere. Maybe we are feeling empowered and want to carry on trying to set these boundaries. Beware!

We want to set the right amount of boundaries and the right ones for each of us. There is no magic number or magic ways to do so, but there are some things to know that may help us keep our boundaries healthy and consistent as well as our relationships.

A few sessions ago we discussed the difference between “defenses” and “boundaries”. We believe this is a critical difference. As we said with our cell metaphor, you should not have walls. You should not be a fortress. Vulnerability is key to our humanity. 

So what can we do?

We can be firm and kind at the same time. That is, we can be honest and direct without being cruel. Let’s say our good friend invites us to a house party, but as much as we love our friend and like spending 1:1 time with them, we do not like her parties. We can set the boundary of time, given we don’t want to use it for that, and decline an invitation by saying “I’m not in a mood for a party so I won’t be coming today, but I’d love to see you for a catchup soon” rather than “I don’t want to go because your parties are boring”. A bit of a difference, huh? Setting boundaries doesn’t mean hurting people’s feelings on the way. Yes, some people may experience frustration when we first start creating them but if we have been respectful and honest when we set them, they should be able to understand and not feel hurt.
Setting boundaries doesn’t mean isolating yourself. If you start to see that you are finding a “but” for most plans and most people, then we might not be talking about boundaries but instead defense mechanisms. There are different reasons why interactions with others can be difficult for us; boundaries can help to make things more comfortable for us, but sometimes we are just feeling disconnected from our friends/family/partner for other reasons. We might be suffering and we prefer not to see people, in which situation an emotional and physical boundary to respect your personal space would be understandable.
However, sometimes we go a bit too far and we tend to isolate ourselves even before any situation where someone/something violates our boundaries. This might be a reflection of how we are feeling inside and in those situations it’s important to bend our boundaries a little bit. Maybe that group of friends is not the environment you want, but what about that friend you really like on her own, could you meet for coffee? Boundaries are not meant to isolate you, they are meant to protect and contain you and we all need our loved ones to stay well and contained.  

Having healthy boundaries doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible. You can still improvise, adapt and be a good companion to your friends/family/colleague/etc. Once we feel comfortable with the boundaries that we have set - the pillars - we can relax and enjoy. Even though setting boundaries is an on-going endeavor, with time it becomes easier and almost automatic. Having the confidence within ourselves that we can set a boundary if needed can allow us to go with the flow a lot more and not worry about things coming up that we won’t be able to control.

Give yourself and other people time. People around you may struggle when you start to set boundaries. Give them time to adjust and an opportunity to get used to your limits. Similarly, give yourself time too! Try not to give up and move your new set boundaries too quickly if you are struggling at the beginning. Allow yourself to practice and give yourself time to do this before reconsidering them or going back to old ways.

When there is a boundary violation and it makes you angry, think about where it stems from.

Anger is a rational reaction to threatening circumstances. It comes from the real ways in which we’ve been hurt, and we deserve to speak to those injuries without self-judgment or fear.
If we remember that anger is a rightful reaction - not an aggression - we can also accept its need for an outlet. 

Without healthy and constructive ways to express our anger:

  • The anger can build-up, making it difficult to control. 
  • The anger can be misplaced or later turn outwards, leading us to lash out at others, including people in our support systems.
  • When our anger goes inwards, this can lead to self-harm, depression, or substance abuse.
  • We can feel triggered when our anger is not acknowledged, or when situations tip-toe too close to the source of our hurt. 

Boundaries for listening to someone else’s anger

Listen respectfully as long as the expression of anger is direct, honest and clean.

If the anger is aggression and you feel scared or too close, then physically move back. Distancing is important for protecting yourself and communicating to the other person that their behaviour is making you uncomfortable. If this is an abusive and dangerous person, leave the situation and the room to get to safety. 

Do not accept sarcasm or any comment that is demanding, degrading, or undermining. Give a warning by holding up your hand like a stop sign. If the demeaning behavior doesn’t stop, say, “I’m willing to listen later when you’re able to talk in a healthy way. For now, I’m going to do something else.” Then do it. Never listen to sarcasm and “you” statements for more than a few minutes. 

If you feel defensive, the best thing to say is, “I feel defensive” and acknowledge that feeling. We are not at our best when we are defensive so it’s important to let that out and not engage in deflecting behaviours.

Listening to someone’s anger can be destabilising but know that just by listening, you are not invalidating your side or agreeing with them. 

If you really did whatever the other person is angry at and you believe their feelings are justified, admit it and apologize. Self-accountability is important.

And there are ways of communicating in conflict and boundary violations. If you’re in a conflict situation, be it about what to make for dinner or whether someone’s mother-in-law is really a dictator in hiding, a tool called the BIFF Response from the High Conflict Institute might help. 

The BIFF Response asks you to be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm when communicating through conflict or with a toxic person (there are too many!), while avoiding AAA (like a triple A battery) which are Advice, Admonishment, and Apologies.

Finally, we’d like to address what happens we mess up: when our intuition is off, and we violate someone else’s boundaries.

“But my gut instinct…”

…what happens when our gut instinct is wrong?

Let’s talk about what happens when we mess up and violate someone else’s boundaries. Our brains are spectacular but, to make us run efficiently and process millions of data points of information every second (what you can see, hear, think), it uses “schemas” or shortcuts. One of these schemas can result in us making a “fundamental attribution error”, wherein we are more likely to other people’s behaviour to their personality than to the situation that behaviour happened in, but are more sensitive to situational influences when it comes to our own behaviour.  This kind of error could manifest when someone else violates our boundaries and we really feel it, but when we do the same, we believe it is justified. Experiencing trauma can also make us hyper-defensive and alert, making us further likely to take slights at what people say and do in order to protect ourselves.

Let’s step back from abuse for a minute and discuss this reaction with another example. Think of what would happen if you were walking down the street and saw... a snake. Your response would be to jump back and run away from the snake, before the more logical part of your brain could debate whether or not the animal could hurt you. Stress is a natural part of our systems that works to keep us all alive, without needing to fuss around with the logic or debating pros and cons. It’s actually something good - a wiring inherent to survival. 

What becomes difficult in our life, however, is that we aren’t always dealing with (actual) snakes, but our minds still interpret the things that scare us with a similar spike of chemicals; our bodies react in a similar way, and overwhelm us. Plus, when we’ve been living in a dangerous environment or with damaging, unpredictable people for so long - anticipating their anger, judgments, and moods - anything they do can feel like an attack, not just to our self-esteem, but to our lives. So, of course we’ll expend the energy every day to manage that aggression in our own need to survive and to live.
However, cortisol is meant to flood our systems and empower us into immediate action. When we’re having to stay hypervigilant day in and day out, it’s exhausting. It becomes harder to manage our own thoughts, moods, or look after ourselves. It is even physically damaging to our health! 

In addition, when we can’t do anything to handle the immediate danger, like run away, or fight back (without risk to ourselves), and with nowhere to run, or no way to flee, we spiral into a deeper state of anxiety and self-doubt. This leaves us even more confused and, thus, complacent to their demands. 

This is something we can unpack and process. Over time, you can recalibrate your “boundary violation radar”. This is work that begins with identifying our own boundaries, and in being re-tuning our awareness to our environments so that we detect and respond appropriately to others’ boundaries.

The homework for this session is… 

We want to encourage you to try and practice one of the boundaries you have been working so hard to set. You may not have the opportunity to bring up a boundary with your family and friends just yet, but we want you to be prepared. Please choose to respond to one of the following questions by using the knowledge about boundaries you have learnt on the course. Try to go for the most challenging one for yourself:

Your sister, who constantly borrows your money to buy unnecessary things asks you the following: “Could you please lend me 50 dollars? I promise you I will pay you back next week, I just saw an amazing offer for a new pair of jeans and I NEED to get them.”

You are making plans to have a quiet and restful weekend when a colleague messages you the following “Hi! We are having a gathering for some family and friends this weekend and we will like to invite you! It’s at 9pm on Saturday at ours- see you then!”.

A friend starts picking on you in front of other friends “You are always so lazy! You took so long to get here, you must have been taking a nap and you couldn’t be bothered to even get here on time.”

Your boss messages you at 11pm at night saying “I am looking for the XQJ report, do you know where it is? ”

What would you say to them? Feel free to use your own examples from practicing to create your own boundaries, if you like!

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. 

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